Pakistan's vanishing minorities

My interview with Farahnaz Ispahani

GMT 09:51 2016 Tuesday ,17 May

Arab Today, arab today My interview with Farahnaz Ispahani

Religious fundamentalism shapes Pakistan’s state policies towards minorities
Peshwar - Arab Today

Religious fundamentalism shapes Pakistan’s state policies towards minorities. Photo: Khalid Mahmood via Wikimedia Commons
Author, activist, journalist, politician, scholar – these are some of the many hats that Farahnaz Ispahani wears. But it is her close proximity to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and her journalistic perspective that provided the mooring for her just published book Purifying the land of the pure, which she says is her attempt at explaining why Pakistan’s minorities feel insecure. The book, which some would say was long overdue, is about the systematic and institutionalised marginalisation of Pakistan’s many religious minorities. Ispahani, who was in India in January-February 2016 to promote her book after Harper Collins India published it in Southasia, says that it was the time spent with Benazir Bhutto, when she served as the Spokesperson of the PPP, that she saw how minorities were being discriminated against, and the assassination of Bhutto herself followed by that of Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, and later of Ispahani’s colleague, Shahbaz Bhatti (Pakistan’s first Christian federal minister), that the seeds for this book were sown. But there is also a personal angle.  As her surname reveals, Ispahani is also a Shia Muslim, a sect that is increasingly being targeted in Pakistan, albeit being part of the larger Muslim community. Ironically, her grandfather Mirza Abol Hassan Ispahani had been a veteran of the Muslim League, which founded the new state of Pakistan. Even Mohamed Ali Jinnah, who led the Muslim League and is regarded as the ‘founding father’ of Pakistan, was a Shia. Purifying the land of the pure starts with these lines: “When Pakistan was born on 14 August 1947, the azan that day was issued five times on loudspeakers by Shias, Sunnis, and Ahmadis in the new country’s capital, Karachi.”
Yet, today the Shias have become a persecuted minority. In 2012-2013, Shias were subjected to 77 attacks! But during the same period 54 lethal attacks were also perpetrated against Ahmadis, 37 against Christians, 16 against Hindus and 3 against Sikhs in Pakistan. These attacks have to be contextualised in the light of uncomfortable statistics – in 1947, the non-Muslim minorities comprised 23 percent of Pakistan’s population, which, at present, has shrunk to 3-5 percent of the population. I asked the uncomfortable question – wasn’t this inevitable for a state whose raison d’etre was religion? “No,” replied Ispahani, stating emphatically that the founding father had a different vision for Pakistan. There is a difference between politics and statesmanship, is her contention. Religion is often used in political mobilisation, but Jinnah’s speech of 11 August 1947, regarding minorities, proves that he did not envision a theocratic state. His commitment to secularism can be judged based on how he nominated a Hindu, several Shias and an Ahmadi to Pakistan’s first cabinet. The tragedy is that the vision outlined in that speech was suppressed during his lifetime and the secular agenda hijacked. “It was a combination of clergy, politicians from India who migrated from East Punjab (like Chaudhry Muhammad Ali), bureaucrats, politicians with no real bases and constituencies of their own within the Pakistan landmass, who felt compelled to turn to religion to garner support,” Ispahani explained. 

Therefore, soon after Pakistan’s creation, many influential people busied themselves with the enterprise of turning Pakistan into an Islamic state. The culmination of these efforts was the passage of the ‘Objective Resolution’ by the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, in 1949, that declared that “Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accord with the teachings and requirements of Islam..” and “adequate provision shall be made to safeguard the legitimate interests of minorities…..” The net effect of the ‘Objective Resolutions’, Ispahani explained, was to define the state in Islamic terms and thereby pave the way for similar, future legislations. The passage of this resolution also resulted in many, not just non-Muslims but also Muslims, to cross over from Pakistan to India. Thus began the business of making Pakistan the ‘land of the pure’, purging it of all non-Muslim ‘influences’.
But there was another angle to the militarism that was to sweep over Pakistan – one which would not only frame the future of India-Pakistan relations but also locate the Hindu minority community as one that was open to disenfranchisement. Liaqat Ali Khan acknowledged “that the land upon which the new Pakistani state stood was inextricably linked to earlier Muslim invasions of South Asia…” Ispahani pointed out that this increased the “vulnerability of the non-Muslims, particularly Hindus, to Islamist extremists…” because “the country was described as the successor to the Muslim conquerors and invaders, who had ruled India for almost eight centuries before the arrival of the British”. So, contrary to conventional wisdom that the Islamisation process of the land of the pure began during the Zia Ul Haq years, she says that the process began soon after Pakistan’s creation itself. The 1956 Pakistan constitution barred non-Muslims from holding the office of head of state, and the amended 1962 constitution retained this clause. The Zia years of course exacerbated the Islamisation process, in the course of which sectarian fault lines deepened as well. He legislated the blasphemy laws, which have since then been used with impunity against minorities and women. (Of course ‘purification’ also had a twin role to play – Sunni extremists were armed and trained to wage jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan and in Kashmir against India). “There was a false Arabisation of Pakistan; a rejection of who we are. The indoctrination, the hatred in the text books means that most Pakistanis, who do not go to private schools and do not have access to other literature, grow up rejecting our neighbourhood and great civilization.” So first it was the Sikhs and Hindus who were disenfranchised in the new state, then the Ahmadiyya, the Christians, and the Shias and, now, it is basically a ‘free for all’.
Ironically, the worst off, as her research shows, are the Ahmadiyya – the community who had been Jinnah’s staunchest supporters in his battle for Pakistan as a separate nation-state. Soon after 1947, a delegation of the clergy had demanded that Ahmadis be declared non-Muslims. Over the years, this campaign intensified, not in the least through violence, and in 1974, the community was finally declared non-Muslims through a constitutional amendment. Members of the community are forbidden from declaring themselves as Muslims, from using the term ‘mosque’ for their places of worship and from issuing the Adhan before their prayers. They also risk a stiff jail sentence for violating ordinances that forbid them from any act that might identify themselves as followers of Islam. They are completely unrepresented at the Cabinet level and subject to edicts like this one: “Any time a Pakistani applies for a passport, he or she has to fill in a form stating that the Ahmadis are not Muslims and their places of worship are not mosques.”
The reason, according to Ispahani, is rooted more in theology, even though the Ahmadis were a rich community and it made sense to target their businesses. Ispahani points out that even in pre-partition India, the Muslim clergy refused to accept them as Muslims. Once the Ahmadis had been dealt with, attention turned to the Shias. Simultaneously, other minority groups, like Christians and Hindus, were also targeted. “They became victims of suicide bomb attacks on their neighbourhoods, and their community members have been converted to Islam against their will. Houses of worship of non-Muslims as well as of Muslim minority sects have been attacked and bombed while filled with worshippers,” said Ispahani.  Karachi’s only synagogue was demolished in 1988 to make way for a shopping mall.
But the violence and legislation against the Ahmadis were particularly dangerous and a watershed moment in Pakistan’s history because the country had now moved from purging non-Muslim influences to an extended period of bitter fighting over who had the right to call themselves ‘Muslim’. A wave of sectarian violence was unleashed in the country that continues even today. Asked if Pakistan learnt anything from the events of 1971, when East Pakistan became the independent nation-state of Bangladesh, Ispahani shook her head to say no. “Even though millions of Bengalis were killed, Pakistani papers did not accept it as a debacle. The severing of half of our country was not considered a massive failure.” In later years, even though many Pakistani writers and journalists have written books and articles, school textbooks have not revisited this period in history.
Ispahani expanded, at length, on whether sectarian rivalries in the Middle East were exacerbating the sectarian fault lines in Pakistan. “Initially when Saudi Arabia and the US invested in Zia (and Pakistan) during the Afghan jihad, Zia started the Sipah-e-Sahiba (Army of the Companions). It specifically targeted the Shias. That was the beginning of the Arabisation and the Sunni-isation of Pakistan. The Shias also set up their own militia – Sipah-e-Mohammed. Iran may have funded it but then discontinued the support. The Shia militia was eventually disbanded.” The Shias, who constitute the biggest religious minority of Pakistan, at 20 percent of the population, are spread out across the country. However, they have still not been declared a minority constitutionally. The author rejected the charge that the phenomenon is unique to Pakistan, and said that communal majoritarianism is a phenomenon being witnessed across the world. Sitting in Delhi I related to this observation. Discrimination against minorities is institutional in almost all Muslim countries, and un-institutionalised discrimination persists across the world. “In the US, for instance, it’s scary to be a Muslim,” she said, alluding to campaign speeches by those like Presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
The faint hope for secularism in Pakistan represented by the vibrant Pakistani press and strong albeit a small civil society has also been extinguished. Most media and civil society groups have been appropriated by the religious right. Though some activists are resisting such co-option, they are paying a heavy price. Ispahani recalled the fate of her friend, the writer and activist Raza Rumi, who survived an assassination attempt (his driver succumbed though) and moved to the US for his own safety. She and her husband – diplomat turned scholar Husain Haqqani –for instance are unable to return to Pakistan for their outspoken activism and are based out of Washington DC. In fact the first threat to her life came when she was working in the Presidency, and from the Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan. But despite this, Ispahani said she saw some reasons to hope because the Federal Minister for Ports and Shipping in the current Sharif government is a Christian, and, just last year, President Nawaz Sharif and other leaders of the PPP and the MQM celebrated Diwali and Christmas. She, of course, also hoped that one day she can travel back to her land where much of her family still resides.
It is this fear and longing that inspired the book, which, she said a trifle apologetically, is not academic. But that is perhaps its strongest point – non-academic but richly endowed with data – it is more reader-friendly than many academic books on the same theme. For instance, Ayesha Jallal’s brilliant book, Partisans of Allah, traces the rise of jihad in Southasia and Islamisation of Pakistan. But its academic nature may restrict readership. On the other hand, Haroon Khalid’s A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities is more of an ethnographic work, looking at these communities from within. Ispahani’s book, however, is shorn of all such accounts. It is concise, full of data, narrated from the point of view of both the believer and the persecuted; therein lies its uniqueness.
As she eloquently explained during the interview (and in the book’s introduction), “in the context of the Muslim world, comprising a youthful population of somewhere in the order of 1.4 billion people, it is equally critical to note the actions of state-sponsored organisations or extremist groups against religious minorities in all Muslim countries”. She added that attacks on religious minorities occur in all Muslim-majority nations. But as Pakistan is the first country to declare itself an Islamic Republic in modern times, how it handles the issues related to its minorities can be a helpful guide in understanding and anticipating the threats that would arise wherever Islamist militancy is on the ascendant. The recent Lahore bombings, which specifically targeted Christians on Easter, but ended up killing mostly women and children, both Christians and Muslims lend urgency to her message.

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